Sports Nut

Benched

What does women’s college basketball have against male coaches?

Pat Summitt
Pat Summitt 

Pat Summitt doesn’t need affirmative action. I write this after carefully scrutinizing her record as head basketball coach of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, which includes 788 victories, 13 Final Four appearances, and six national championships. And yet, the women who run women’s college basketball seem to think that she does. Their hilarious notion is that Summitt and other female coaches should have an easier road to the Final Four than a women’s basketball coach who happens to be a man.

Each year, about a third of the teams invited to the NCAA Tournament are coached by men. You’d expect these teams to be assigned pretty evenly to the four regional brackets—some in the Midwest, some in the East, and so on. But a few years back, sportswriters and coaches began noticing something strange. Year after year, the best teams with male coaches were being stuffed into the same regional bracket, meaning they had to play and eliminate one another before advancing to the Final Four. In 1999, the top four seeds in the Mideast Regional were coached by men. No other bracket got similar treatment. In 2001, male-coached teams made up the top three seeds in the East Regional. Again, nowhere in the tournament was there so high a concentration of testosterone.

In 1996 and 1997, Georgia and Connecticut, both coached by men, made the Final Four. In the five years since, the tournament selection committee has placed them in the same region four times. (In a sense, this would be like placing the men’s teams from Duke and North Carolina in the same regional year after year.) Male coaches began to realize that the committee—which is composed entirely of women—had it in for them. The women who run college basketball have basically guaranteed that each year, three teams in the Final Four will be coached by women and one, if that, will be coached by a man.

When confronted with these charges, the selection committee and its defenders cry—get this—sexism. The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins says conspiracy theorists are proceeding from the “profoundly sexist” inference that “it is harder to play against a male coach than a female one.” Actually, it’s just the opposite. Female coaches have dominated college basketball for the past two decades. They’ve won seven out of the past 10 national championships. They hold two-thirds of the Division I head coaching jobs. The profoundly sexist inference is that in the arena of women’s basketball, female coaches like Summitt need help to beat the men.

Besides, when infused with affirmative action the women’s tourney becomes a terrible bore. Geno Auriemma’s Connecticut Huskies—who won the national championship Sunday—almost always emerge from the “men’s regional.” And because many of the best teams are stuffed in that regional, the top schools with female coaches have little trouble. On the way to this year’s Final Four, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Duke won their games by an average of 21 points. Oklahoma won its regional final 94-60.

The most sickening thing about the committee’s antics is that they bow to the crudest stereotype about women’s sports: namely, that what women do off the court is more interesting than what they do on it. You can’t read media coverage of women’s tennis, figure skating, or track, for instance, without reading about a female athlete’s romances, her spats with her coach and other players, and a libidinous description of her body. Much of the blame lies with male sportswriters (including, occasionally, Slate’s) who can’t stop slobbering over female athletes long enough to write a game story.

But here, it’s the women who run the sport who are drawing attention away from it. They’ve transformed the NCAA Tournament, supposedly the purest sporting event in the country, into a shrine to sisterhood.